Monday, January 12, 2009

Left front breached

Mamata breaches Left’s fort

Shikha Mukerjee (Pioneer, Monday, January 12, 2009)

By defeating the CPI(M)-led Left Front in the Nandigram by-election, the storm petrel of West Bengal politics has proved a point. But can she forge a meaningful alternative?

In Nandigram, the Trinamool Congress’s labour has yielded exactly the outcome that it worked to achieve. The by-election result in this intensely controversial constituency, which was the battleground between the dominant CPI(M) and every other political party, organisation and individual in 2007 over the possibility of locating the petrochemical Special Economic Zone, has revealed that the Trinamool Congress, backed by the Congress, has consolidated its base at the cost of the Left.

Three by-election results were declared on January 9 and the diversity of underlying causes that produced these outcomes reveals the complexities that pose a challenge to the ruling CPI(M)-led Left Front in its crusade to transform the State’s economy and integrate it with that of the rest of India and so build a link to the changing global economic environment. The way voters have made their choices it has became clear that West Bengal would have to first live through and survive a fierce conflict between deeply rooted conservatism defended by the Trinamool Congress and also the Congress, and a change-inducing CPI(M).

The ferocity of the conflict that erupted in places like Nandigram has surprised many, because the unsuspected depths of conservatism in progressive West Bengal were never seriously acknowledged. Because West Bengal had voted the Left since 1967; because the ‘renaissance’ had started here; because social movements challenging obscurantist practices within religion blossomed here, there was little understanding of and sensitivity to the strongly emotional attachment to the old ways.

As a run up to the Lok Sabha election, the Nandigram result is good news for the Trinamool Congress and depressing for the CPI(M)-led Left Front. It has to come to terms with the fairly conclusive evidence that voters have transferred their allegiance. Instead of regaining ground lost in Nandigram over the proposal to set up the SEZ, CPI(M) must adjust to the new politics of eroding popularity and an ascendant Trinamool Congress.

Instead of there being no serious alternative to the Left in West Bengal, the Nandigram result shows that for voters in that place, the Trinamool Congress is the alternative. Apprehensions of Ms Mamata Banerjee’s detractors about the planks that make up her populist appeal are irrelevant, because Nandigram prefers to be represented by Firoza Bibi, mother of a martyr, whose usual arena of activity has been her home rather than Premanand Bharati, a school teacher, put up a candidate by the Communist Party of India.

By making its choice, Nandigram has confirmed what some had suspected: There are deeply rooted pockets of antipathy to the processes of modernisation in West Bengal. For those who do not want modernisation, the antipathy has spilled out as a vote against the ruling Left and its commitment to change. It must also be noted that in Nandigram it hardly mattered that the candidate was from the CPI; to the voter the Left was subsumed under the overarching dominance of the CPI(M).

While it is possible to explain the Nandigram outcome as a consequence of the cumulative discontent born of disappointment and resentment over the high-handed ways of the CPI(M), which took it for granted the opinions and concerns of the people, a simpler and startling explanation could be that just over half of the people in Nandigram do not want change. Since they are free to exercise their choice, the thumbs down to change, progress, modernisation, integration with the trajectory that India’s economy is pursing is irrefutable evidence that West Bengal’s politics will henceforward be a bitter fight between those who propose change and those who oppose it.

However, Nandigram’s is not the only verdict and in other places, it seems, the Trinamool Congress’s brand of conservatism, dressed up a righteous jihad against the CPI(M), does not sell. In obscure Para, a reserved Schedule Caste constituency in Purulia district, which has a significant tribal population, the CPI(M)’s brand of progressive politics continues to accurately capture and reflect the aspirations of the voter. Ms Mina Barui has won from Para, confirming that the CPI(M) is a significant vote catcher even in troubled times.

Congress’s win in Sujapur, the fiefdom of the Ghani Khan Chowdhurys, reveals yet another aspect of politics in West Bengal, where loyalty to a family takes precedence over everything. Ms Mausam Benazir Nur is a global citizen, but that hardly matters; to the voter she is ‘the family’.

Sentiment over science (Marxism to its believers is a science), conservatism against Communist ideology, a simulation of the world of rural Bengal vis-a-vis the real describes the ways in which voters make up their minds. Different sets of voters prefer different ways of life. In as much as the CPI(M) and its transforming agenda have been challenged, the by-election lifts and drops a question on the Trinamool Congress plate — can it gather together all the conservative voters and make a credible bid as an alternative, necessarily with the backing of the Congress?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Amartya Sen’s blow to Left Front policy

Amartya Sen’s blow to Left Front policy 04.01.2009
Uday Basu

Year 2009 ended badly for the CPI-M. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, whom the homegrown Marxists look upon as one of the champions of their political creed, virtually dealt a knockout punch to their controversial industrialisation initiatives in general and the aborted Tata Motors small car project in particular.
Almost at the same time, far from the city’s madding crowd, a small landowner, Mr Probir Roy, supervising the threshing of paddy grown on his land in Birbhum district, nailed the Marxists’ lies about stagnation in agriculture and the imperative need for industrialisation on farm land. He traced the root of the current turmoil in rural Bengal to the Marxists’ land reforms that led to severe fragmentation of land.
If the economist came to his conclusion after poring over weighty tomes and documents, the hard-working owner of agricultural land could see through the folly of the ruling combine with his field experiences.
For the past two years, CPI-M leaders starting from Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to lower level party functionaries had been tireless in their propaganda that far too many people were engaged in agriculture and the yield was too inadequate. The only way to generate employment for “thousands of educated youth in rural and urban areas” was to set up industries through acquiring “wasteful” farmland.
“Factories can’t come up in the air”, was the common refrain of the Marxists of all denominations to justify their clarion call of evicting farmers from their fertile lands so that industries could be set up.
The statistics reeled off by the chief minister can’t be wrong, since they are backed up by the findings of various central and state agencies. But true to Marxist tradition, Mr Bhattacharjee never told the whole truth. The yield from land is bound to be low as a logical corollary to the much-hyped land reforms policy the Marxists implemented since they came to power in 1977.
When they effected the reforms, they believed they were ushering in a revolution of sorts as big landlords were being cut to size and small and marginal farmers and landless labourers were being freed from the clutches of oppressive jotedars (rich peasants).
What was the upshot of this revolution?
In the language of the small landowner, the land reforms have created a situation where only those who have other sources of livelihood can hope to get reasonable returns from land. But, those who solely depend on their landholdings can hardly ever rise above the subsistence level.
“According to the land ceiling act an individual farmer can own a maximum of 18 bighas of land, a family of five 35 bighas and for extra members two to two and a half bighas each not exceeding a total of 52 bighas. If land weren’t fragmented in such a manner one could have invested considerable amount of money for irrigating a large tract of land ensuring greater yield. But such investment is out of the question on small plots earmarked by the ceiling,” Mr Roy said.
Therein lies the rub.
It’s entirely wrong for Mr Bhattacharjee and his comrades in arms to blame agriculture for its low returns and project industrialisation as a panacea for economic ills. They created this sorry rural economy by splitting land in a way that has eventually rendered it far less productive.
This is not to hold brief for big landlords or exploitation of rural poor by rich peasants. What Mr Roy sought to demonstrate was the inherent weakness of the Marxists’ land reforms policythat in the ultimate analysis is responsible for the stagnation in agriculture.
There’s no harm for the Marxists to admit their mistakes and try to rebuild the system. This was precisely the second theme that Professor Sen elaborated at the debate in the presence of the chief minister, several of his Cabinet colleagues and other Left leaders.
The force and bluntness with which he spoke his mind sounded intriguing and left people wondering why he sought to debunk the top CPI-M leaders in public in such a fashion.
Describing himself as a fellow traveller of the Marxists, Professor Sen said that since his student days at Presidency College he had been adhering to Leftist thinking and “nothing has happened to make any reappraisal of that position”. Having said this he stunned the audience by saying that the process of de-Stalinisation was being carried out in Russia, Vietnam and other places, but surprisingly the CPI-M hadn’t openly decried the wrongs of Stalin. “There’s no harm in admitting mistakes,” he said.
As if to rub salt into injuries, Professor Sen said land acquisition for industrialisation can only be “the last recourse” and that the Tatas should have bought land from the farmers for the Singur project as part of the dynamics of market economy especially when they could pay huge amounts for buying the British steel major.
Such a position is not only a marked departure from Professor Sen’s earlier stand on the issue, but is diametrically opposite to his Marxist friends and admirers’ view who have been advocating that industrialisation can’t be done without acquiring farmland.
The question that automatically arises is: Was the whole show of turning the CPI-M’s industrialisation policy virtually on its head stage-managed? Or, are the Marxists having a second thought on their pet industrialisation overdrive?
The latter can be convincing only if an economist of Professor Sen’s stature lends his voice to it. Is it for this reason that the CPI-M heavyweights invited him to deliver the lecture and contradict their own policy so that they can suitably modify it and attribute the change to Professor Sen and economists of his standing?
Perhaps this is the only course left for the Marxists to extricate themselves from the predicament they are in with the Opposition wresting vast swathes of their support base slowly but steadily.
If that is true, it’s rather too late. The damage is done.

(The writer is Special Representative, The Statesman)
“De-Stalinisation is going on in Russia, Vietnam and other places, but the CPI-M doesn’t openly do so. I have been a Leftist and I believe one has to admit mistakes one has made.”
~ Nobel laureate Amartya Sen.

“Market economy should have been followed in getting land for the (Nano) project. We talk about market forces which should also have applied in the case of Singur. When the Tatas could buy a world steel major, there was no reason why they didn’t buy the land.”
~ Professor Amartya Sen